Sue William Silverman and the Craft of Memoir

September 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

Brevity book editor Debbie Hagan takes a look at Sue William Silverman’s recent writing guide, Fearless Confessions, in our latest issue. Here are some excerpts from her review:

…Sue William Silverman begins by showing us what not to do. She takes us to the beginning of her career, as she’s sitting in writing class, facing an instructor holding up a magnolia blossom and saying, “Describe this.”

Silverman complies by writing, “The flower is white, the petals are soft, the blossom smells like perfume.”

“Unoriginal,” the instructor tells her.

Then the instructor tells the class to write using all five senses. Silverman jots down a paragraph about a homeless man. Most of her sentences sound rather predictable, but this one line stands out: “Sunrays clanged in his ears.” Clanged? Odd, until you realize that this man is hungover. This verb not only makes us sit up and pay attention, but deepens our understanding of this character.

Silverman shows us in Fearless Confessions how this one line changed her writing. In it, she saw how authentic details shape tone, theme, and voice, “[It] taught me one of the most valuable lessons of creative writing: how external sensory imagery is crafted – slanted – to create mood and emotion,” she writes…

One of my favorite sections of this book is chapter five It’s not enough just to find the right voice, Silverman points out. The memoirist really needs to juggle several voices, namely innocence (the time of the narrative) and experience (the wizened self looking back). I’ve shared this idea with memoir students, who either stare at me blankly as if I’m speaking Swahili or bolt upright as if I’d just handed them that long sought-after puzzle piece. I’ve never read (or heard) about this memoir technique anywhere else, but Silverman not only explains it, but illustrates it with clear examples…

Debbie Hagan’s full review is here.

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